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Last Updated: Monday, 7 January 2008, 21:43 GMT
Ministers seek prison strike ban
Officers outside Bristol Prison
The walk-out took the government by surprise
The government will reintroduce powers to ban strikes by prison officers in England and Wales, months after a surprise walkout by 20,000 staff.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw said he had "no alternative" but to seek reserve powers, if a voluntary no-strike deal cannot be reached.

He said powers were needed to protect public safety and prisoners' welfare.

But the Tories, whose 1994 ban on such strikes was repealed by Labour, said it was a "humiliating U-turn".

The government is putting forward amendments to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill currently going through Parliament and they could be in force within months.

'Very serious'

The head of the Prison Officers' Association (POA), whose strike over pay last August took the government by surprise, said they would not be "bullied" by politicians.

Mr Straw told MPs the measures would be kept in reserve and said he would "much prefer" they never be used.

He said he hoped the POA and government would be able to draw up a new voluntary agreement by May.

In respect of certain absolutely fundamental services to the security of the state...you can't actually allow industrial action
Justice Secretary Jack Straw

He said August's strike led to "very serious disturbances" at one young offenders' institution - Lancashire Farms - causing damage estimated at 220,000.

There was "significant disruption" at some of the other 129 non-private prisons affected, he added.

Later he told the BBC: "There's a clash of principles here. On the one hand the right of people to take industrial action, which in general, obviously, we fully support.

"But also, in respect of certain absolutely fundamental services to the security of the state, like the police, like the armed services and yes, like the prison service, you can't actually allow industrial action."

Mass walkout

Labour repealed the previous Conservative government's ban on strikes by prison officers in 2005, replacing it with a voluntary "no strike" agreement in a bid to improve industrial relations.

But in June 2007, the POA told ministers they intended to pull out of the agreement, accusing the government of failing to deliver on "promise after promise".

Jack Straw
Mr Straw said some professions could not be allowed to strike

The no-strike deal is still in force in Scotland.

Mr Straw told the BBC that when the ban was repealed, prison officers knew it would be reinstated if they pulled out of the agreement.

And while officers would not "be happy about it", he had mentioned it was under discussion last October.

'Not intimidated'

Brian Caton, general secretary of the POA, said claims about the cost of damage during the strike were "absolute rubbish".

He said: "The government has previously announced that it made a profit of 64,000 during the strike because of the wages saved, so it's a bit rich to mention this now.

If the government is contemplating taking away trade union rights, they have to offer something in return
Harry Fletcher
Napo

"We are not prepared to be bullied or intimidated by murderers and terrorists so we will certainly not be bullied or intimidated by politicians.

"We will have to look carefully at what Mr Straw is saying."

Harry Fletcher, of the probation union Napo, said the move would inflame the dispute further, adding: "If the government is contemplating taking away trade union rights, they have to offer something in return."

'U-turn'

For the Conservatives, Nick Herbert said in opposition, Labour had fought "tooth and nail" against the plan and it was "extraordinary" it wanted to reintroduce it now.

Former Tory home secretary Michael Howard said: "Isn't this the most humiliating U-turn by the secretary of state, who personally campaigned shamelessly for the votes of prison officers in the 1997 general election by promising to give them the right to strike?"

For the Lib Dems, David Heath accused Labour of creating a "problem of trust" between the public service and the government and urged "clear, binding arbitration" to be set up to deal with future problems.

He said there was a feeling, specifically in the uniformed branches of the public service, that they "are increasingly taken advantage of".



VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Justice Secretary on the proposed strike ban



SEE ALSO
Prison staff demand strike talks
10 Oct 07 |  UK Politics
Prisons staff 'need strike right'
12 Sep 07 |  UK Politics
'No new deal' for prison officers
31 Aug 07 |  UK Politics
Brown's prisons pay deal warning
30 Aug 07 |  UK Politics

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